Why Cults Work: The Power Games of the Islamic State and the Lord’s Resistance Army
Graeme Wood’s article “What does ISIS really want?” has become the most discussed foreign policy article of the year. Yet the piece’s power lies not in the title question, but in Wood’s blunt assessment of a paradox that leaves Western leaders flummoxed: How does one explain the traction of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while also denying its religious legitimacy, in order to combat anti-Muslim bigotry? Wood didn’t mince words in refuting this hesitancy:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic… the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
What follows is a fascinating piece of research, and a frustrating read. Despite addressing all the right aspects of ISIL’s ideological content to understand its power, Wood’s argument is guided by the wrong question: “How Islamic is ISIL?” For him, denial of ISIL’s Islamic nature is why we fail to understand it. The analytical pitfalls of quantifying “Islamic-ness” should be self-explanatory. Are some of Islam’s 1.6 billion practitioners less Muslim than others if they are less violent? How do we explain the religious devotion of politically “quietest” Salafism, compared to the British ISIL fighters who purchased Islam for Dummies pre-departure? This is not to say that religion is irrelevant in the analysis of ISIL. ISIL uses Islam as an existential anchor, so its actions have to be influenced by it in order to work. It also freely capitalizes on global Islamist sentiment. But to say the whole structure is uniquely, potently Islamic is not just a logical fallacy, but part of the very illusion that sustains loyalty to it. Actually, the features that Wood claims represent ISIL’s Islamic orthodoxy – its obsession with “purity” and the apocalyptic prophecy it stakes its claim on – have “been done,” and not just by Islamists. This is revealed by comparing ISIL with another notoriously violent army, led by another self-styled holy man.
ISIL and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) represent grabs for power, but power of a cosmic kind, beyond what human society can grant them. In examining both, I suggest a word substitution. The ways in which ISIL works, to extraordinary success, are not uniquely Islamic. They are uniquely “cultic.” And to examine ISIL as a cult is to see chinks in its armor. ISIL’s territory may be shrinking, but that alone won’t kill the loyalties of its cadres, nor slow the spread of its bloody sectarian ideology. In ISIL, as in the LRA, knowledge is power. If we can challenge the leaders’ tight hold on that power, ISIL’s ideological grip on its fighters might just begin to crumble.
Follow the leader
“My question was simple. How could one madman, leading an army of abducted children, hold half a country hostage for twenty years?”
So asked journalist Matthew Green, who travelled to northern Uganda to meet that madman, Joseph Kony. Much of the scant media coverage the LRA conflict received in its twenty years in Uganda focused on Kony’s religious lunacy, and his family’s. After President Yoweri Museveni’s guerrillas took power in 1986, Kony’s cousin, a Christian prophetess called Alice Lakwena, began to fight back. Alice claimed to be possessed by a Christian “holy spirit” that instructed her to raise an army to protect her northern Acholi people from the new president. The spirit declared that if Alice’s soldiers followed his commands, rocks they threw at the enemy would explode like bombs, and crossing themselves with oil would make them bulletproof. Her appeal was staggering. Her soldiers numbered in their thousands, and were only narrowly defeated. Alice fled, but was soon outdone by her cousin.
Kony convinced a band of followers of his own conviction, that he had inherited possession of Alice’s holy spirit, and would take up her mantle. He pledged to overthrow Museveni’s new government and lead Uganda according to the Ten Commandments. These claims juxtaposed absurdly with the actions of his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), famous for abducting children and mutilating and massacring the Acholi people they claimed to be fighting for. Not unlike ISIL, it was incredulously asked who could ever follow a preacher of such religious perversion.
There is a word that doggedly follows descriptions of Kony, a fig-leaf for lack of understanding. He is “charismatic,” like a Jim Jones or Charles Manson, inspiring incredible violence from devoted followers. Yet this notion of “charisma” can tell us more. When Max Weber wrote of the charismatic authoritarian, the revolutionary leader that embodied his own authority, he was basing it on the model of a prophet, one who is literally possessed by the divine and so beyond questioning. As Weber recognized, this is an inherently unstable kind of power. Conviction in a leader’s divinity can’t be sustained forever. Charismatics start movements, but if their movements are to last, they must “routinize” by establishing institutions that can outlast the leader.
Violence, power, and taboo
But what of ISIL? Can we consider their “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “charismatic” in the prophetic sense too? Up to a point. Like Kony, Baghdadi freely borrows spiritual legitimacy, ensuring his Qurayshi heritage (the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad) is well known. However, ISIL’s size means it cannot micro-manage its subjects to the extent needed to create a true cult of personality. ISIL, necessarily, is already “routinizing,” with social services, justice provision, and some stability within its territory. This diversion from the LRA model is revealing. ISIL is truly unique in being a self-sustaining death cult. It could have (at least in its early days) held power through this state-like service provision alone in war-torn Iraq and Syria, so why its cinematic spectacles of murder? Violent forms of Sharia, such as those that characterized Taliban rule in Afghanistan, are understandably effective in quelling dissent, but ISIL’s theatrics of horror are so extreme it has been asked whether they are destroying themselves.
In fact, these spectacles of violence are strategic, and crucial to the survival of cults that shroud power grabs in religion, rather than moral justification. This is a complex concept. To some extent religion is moral justification, because it invokes the unquestionable authority of God. Yet because cult leaders must appear divinely sanctioned, they find themselves in a game of salesmanship, having to convince their followers that they possess unique cosmological control. And in a grim contradiction to most religious teachings, the best way to demonstrate this is through shocking violence.
In Acholi cosmology, the spirit of a person who dies violently, the cen, haunts their killer, meaning people returning from war are often rejected by their families until they undergo purification rites. When the LRA abducted to fill its ranks, violence was part of initiating the abductees. Forcing them to witness or partake in a killing polluted them with cen. Yet the commanders staging the killing simultaneously showed they held no such fears of cen. They were proving they had a more powerful force, Kony’s spirit, on their side. Abductees later underwent purification rites, a passage into a new, “pure” society. When ISIL burned Jordanian pilot Muath al Kassassbeh alive, they defied a well-known Islamic taboo against death by fire, a punishment only Allah can inflict. Thousands of Islamic authorities around the world were trounced in a single, horrific gesture of defiance.
The processes are not identical. ISIL attracts fighters on a scale that the LRA, overwhelmingly reliant on abduction, did not. It has pragmatic benefits for the jihad-inclined; territory and wealth never go unnoticed. Yet ISIL’s attraction also lies in its displays of fantastical power, and fantasy is the operative word. Narratives of good, evil, and heroic violence resonate in every culture, giving an understandable edge to a group that fuses religious politics with theatrics befitting a Middle Eastern “Game of Thrones.”
The shock-value of these acts is more important than their aims and justifications. When those are given, they are necessarily vague. I asked a former senior LRA commander about how Kony imagined his Ten Commandment theocracy would work. He said that Kony saw his role as that of spiritual adviser, “above” a president. Revealingly, though, there is little more in statements of former LRA members about Kony’s ultimate vision. His legitimacy in the movement obviously wasn’t based on pragmatism. Equally vague was his reasoning for violence. A former abducted “wife” of a senior commander told me that Kony said he and Museveni were “rods” with which to discipline the sinful Acholi, purifying the country’s sin through death.
ISIL’s narrative, similarly, is unapologetically “takfiri,” (the principle of killing fellow Muslims for impure practice of faith). No holy book is without elements which, taken literally, could justify violence to expunge impurity. But such acts are shocking because they are rare. Even when backed by literal interpretations of scripture, rendering that kind of extreme violence acceptable among rank-and-file fighters takes engineering. A powerful leader alone cannot make individuals willingly commit the worst crimes imaginable. For that, not just the leader, but the time, must be extraordinary.
The end of days?
Violence as “purification” is only legitimate if it is creating something greater, a “new dawn.” The signs of that new dawn must line up in prophecies. Kony’s preached ends of purifying the land of sin “worked” because his message offered a religiously sanctioned way out of violence, even though it was violence he was creating, and the way out demanded more. ISIL isn’t destroying history for the sake of it. It is desecrating the past to prepare for the future. As Wood remarks, they refer constantly to a hadith describing a battle at Dabiq. Dabiq is a region north of Aleppo that ISIL currently occupy (at cost), that, according to analyst Will McCants who studies ISIL’s apocalyptic narratives, they “purified” upon capture. According to the hadith, Judgement Day will only arrive when the armies of “AlRoum” come to fight at Dabiq.
“AlRoum” is interestingly vague; it translates as “Rome,” yet ISIL seems to have reinterpreted the soldiers of Rome to mean the armies of the “crusaders,” Americans and their allies. Sex slavery was also justified by ISIL in relation to the coming apocalypse, since it was said in a hadith that Judgement Day would arise when a slave gave birth to her master. This ambiguity is the essence of prophecy. Prophecies cannot be rendered untrue. If their symbolic components do not line up, they simply haven’t happened yet. What millenarian cults do is create an environment in which that prophecy, and the new era it promises, seems constantly impending, and here extreme violence again serves its purpose. If the conditions leading to a convergence of signs were not apocalyptic, how would it ever be known that the prophecy is coming true? And if the cult’s leaders had not proven themselves so powerful by inflicting that violence, then they would not be recognized as the strongest agents with whom to side on Judgement Day. ISIL’s circuses of horror don’t just give it the international attention it craves. They set the stage for the apocalypse on which it justifies its power scramble.
The rules of the game
What ISIL and the LRA created, all at once, were conditions of intense fear and violence, apocalyptic reasoning for them, and the everyday means to survive them. This is where we must examine not just movements’ grand aims, but their habitual rules. In the LRA, Kony’s “spirit” would regularly dictate rules that fighters must follow to stay “pure” enough to survive; restrictions on drinking and smoking, retreating in battle, arbitrarily imposed fasts, and periods of sexual abstinence. Odd though their importance may sound, testimonies of fighters reveal their strength. Researcher Ben Mergelsberg quotes one abductee as saying, “The rules strengthened me… I saw that if I followed the things… I would stay alive….”
Stories of what happened to those who broke the rules peppered testimonies of abductees I recorded. One young woman said:
…he would tell them…that the god in him is telling them to fast… those who would sneak and eat, when they were in battle they would get shot in the mouth… but somehow they did not die. They became living testimonies of Kony’s greatness.
The imperative is that only Kony could dispense these rules, as only he could access the spirit that dictated them. Only he could offer those within his ranks the means to stay alive, in the violent conditions he created. So long as they believed him, obedience was his. And because the rules could change, he was indispensable. In a hyper-violent, religion-steeped setting, these codes of behavior come to represent a means of survival for the fighters, entrenching the power of those dispensing them.
ISIL is slightly different. Bagdhadi is symbolically powerful as caliph, but not irreplaceable; his prophecies foretell successors. Furthermore, the Quranic “rules” its rank and file follow are written down, not the monopoly of individuals, or at least not in theory. In fact, the theological sophistication of its learned leaders has been described as a significant attraction by those who joined ISIL. The average low-ranking fighter is not particularly educated. While they can and do recite a few Quranic verses, theological authority lies in the upper echelons of leadership, whose interpretations it would be deeply unwise to challenge if, indeed, an individual felt they had the knowledge to do so. As religious scholar Caner Dagli points out, ISIL “cherry-picks” only the aspects of a plethora of religious texts that support their agenda. It is those aspects the “learned” leaders emphasize, and that the fighters follow. Former ISIL captive, journalist Didier Francois, told CNN “We didn’t even have the Quran; they didn’t want even to give us a Quran.” It is unknown if lack of access to the Quran is common among the lower ranks, but if so, it is not a coincidence. Knowledge outside cult leaders’ teachings endangers their power, because that resides in their message’s exclusivity. Those looking to weaken this supposedly religious army would, ironically, be advised to give its rank-and-file a rounded religious education, something counter-propaganda could help to do.
In Iraq and Syria’s warscapes, ISIL is simulating a coming apocalypse. By desecrating taboos on violence, it proves it fears no higher authority. The unforgiving religious doctrines its citizens live by aren’t just coercive forms of power. As its fighters and captives come to believe ISIL’s apocalyptic hype, these “rules” represent the means to triumph on Judgement Day. Until fulfilling its prophecy seems impossible, ISIL’s gratuitous violence will not weaken it. Its power, like the LRA’s, is vested in the exclusive knowledge of its leaders, and their ability to teach their subjects how to survive what’s coming. To weaken the loyalty and verve of ISIL’s fighters, we must find a way to pass the knowledge its leaders want to restrict onto its followers.
So what does ISIL really want? It wants what every millenarian cult does: power, but power above and beyond what humanity can bestow. ISIL and the LRA both need religion to sanction their claims, and no religion has a monopoly on the power-hungry.
Eleanor Beevor is a research associate at Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank based in London. She is a PhD candidate at Oxford University, focusing on kingdoms, leadership and ethnic tension in the Great Lakes region of East Africa. She is a former Conflict Resolution Program intern at The Carter Center, and has previously written papers on training schemes to improve military adherence to International Humanitarian Law in Mali, which were used to brief the British Contingent of the 2013 European Union Training Mission.